Chapter no 26

The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air, 2)

‌As I am about to leave Hollow Hall, I am suddenly beset by a wave of exhaustion. I sit down on the steps, light-headed, and wait until the feeling passes. A plan is growing in my mind, a plan that requires the cover of dark and my being well-rested and reasonably well-equipped.

I could go to Taryn’s house, but Locke would be there, and he did try to kill me that one time.

I could return to Madoc’s, but if I do, it’s likely that the servants have been instructed to roll me up in fuzzy blankets and hold me in cushioned captivity until Cardan is no longer under my command, but sworn to obey his Grand General.

Horrifyingly, I wonder if the best thing to do is to stay here. There are no servants, no one to bother me but Balekin, and he is preoccupied. I doubt he would even notice my presence in this enormous and echoing house.

I mean to be practical, but it is very hard when it means fighting against instincts that tell me to run as far and as fast from Balekin as I can. But I’ve exhausted myself already.

Having snuck through Hollow Hall enough times before, I know the way to the kitchens. I drink more water from the pump just beyond it, finding myself desperately thirsty. Then, I wend my way up the steps to where Cardan once slept. The walls are as bare as I remember, the half-tester bed dominates the room with its carvings of dancing, bare-breasted cat girls.

He had books and papers—now gone—but the closet is still full of extravagant and abandoned clothes. I suppose they are no longer ridiculous

enough for the High King. But more than a few are black as night, and there’s hose that will be easy to move in. I crawl into Cardan’s bed, and although I fear I will toss and turn with nerves, I surprise myself by slipping immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Upon waking in the moonlight, I go to his closet and dress myself in the simplest of his clothes—a velvet doublet that I rip pearls from the collar and cuffs, along with a pair of plain, soft leggings.

I set out again, feeling less wobbly. When I pass through the kitchens, I find little in the way of food, but there’s a corner of hard bread that I gnaw on as I walk through the dark.

The Palace of Elfhame is a massive mound with most of the important chambers—including the enormous throne room—underground. At the peak is a tree, its roots worming down more deeply than could come from anything but magic. Just beneath the tree, however, are the few rooms that have panes of thin crystal letting in light. They are unfashionable rooms, like the one Cardan once set fire to the floor of and where Nicasia popped out of his wardrobe to shoot him.

That room is now sealed, the double doors locked and barred so that the passage to the royal chambers cannot be accessed. It would be impossible to get inside from within the palace.

But I am going to climb the hill.

Quietly, stealthily, I set off, sinking my two knives into the dirt, pulling myself up, wedging my feet on rocks and roots, and then doing it again. Higher and higher I go. I see bats circling overhead and freeze, willing them not to be anyone’s eyes. An owl calls from a nearby tree, and I realize how many things could be observing me. All I can do is go faster. I am nearly to the first set of windows when weakness hits me.

I grit my teeth and try to ignore the shaking of my hands, the unsteadiness of my step. I am breathing too fast, and all I want to do is give myself a rest. I am sure, though, that if I do, my muscles will stiffen up, and I won’t be able to start again. I keep going, although my whole body hurts.

Then I stab one of the knives into the dirt and try to lever myself up, but my arm is too weak. I can’t do it. I stare down the steep, rocky hill, at the twinkling lights around the entrance to the brugh. For a moment, my vision blurs, and I wonder what would happen if I just let go.

Which is a stupid thought. What would happen is that I would roll down the hill, hit my head, and hurt myself really badly.

I hold on, scrabbling my way toward the glass panes. I have looked at the maps of the palace enough times that I only have to peer into three before I find the correct one. It looks down on only darkness, but I get to work,

chipping at the crystal with my knife until it cracks.

I wrap my hands in the sleeve of the doublet and break off pieces of it. Then I drop through into the darkness of the rooms that Cardan abandoned. The walls and furnishings still stink of smoke and sour wine. I make my way by touch to the armoire.

From there it is easy to open the passage and pad down the hall, down the spiraling path to the royal chamber.

I slip into Cardan’s room. Though it is not yet dawn, I am lucky. The room is empty of revelry. No courtiers doze on the cushions or in his bed. I walk to where he sleeps and press my hand over his mouth.

He wakes, fighting against my grip. I press down hard enough that I can feel his teeth against my skin.

He grabs for my throat, and for a moment, I am scared that I’m not strong enough, that my training isn’t good enough. Then his body relaxes utterly, as though realizing who I am.

He shouldn’t relax like that. “He sent me to kill you,” I whisper against his ear.

A shiver goes through his body, and his hand goes to my waist, but instead of pushing me away, he pulls me into the bed with him, rolling my body across him onto the heavily embroidered coverlets.

My hand slips from his mouth, and I am unnerved to find myself here, in the very bed that I felt too human to lie in, beside someone who terrifies me the more I feel for him.

“Balekin and Orlagh are planning your murder,” I say, flustered. “Yes,” he says lazily. “So why did I wake up at all?”

I am awkwardly conscious of his physicality, of the moment when he was half awake and pulled me against him. “Because I am difficult to charm,” I say.

That makes him give a soft laugh. He reaches out and touches my hair, traces the hollow of my cheekbone. “I could have told my brother that,” he says, with a softness in his voice I am utterly unprepared for.

“If you hadn’t allowed Madoc to bar me from seeing you, I might have told you all this sooner. I have information that cannot wait.”

Cardan shakes his head. “I know not of what you speak. Madoc told me that you were resting and that we should let you heal.”

I frown. “I see. And in the interim, Madoc would no doubt take my place as your advisor,” I tell Cardan. “He gave your guard orders to keep me out of the palace.”

“I will give them different orders,” Cardan says. He sits up in the bed. He’s bare to the waist, his skin silvery in the soft glow of the magical lights.

He continues looking at me in this strange way, as though he’s never seen me before or as though he thought he might never see me again.

“Cardan?” I say, his name tasting strange on my tongue. “A representative from the Court of Termites came to see me. She told me something—”

“What they asked in exchange for you,” he says. “I know all the things you will say. That it was foolish to agree to pay their price. That it destabilizes my rule. That it was a test of my vulnerabilities, and that I failed it. Even Madoc believed it was a betrayal of my obligations, although his alternatives weren’t exactly diplomatic, either. But you do not know Balekin and Nicasia as I do—better they think you are important to me than to believe what they do to you is without consequences.”

I consider how they treated me when they believed me to be valuable and shudder.

“I have thought and thought since you were gone, and there is something I wish to say.” Cardan’s face is serious, almost grave, in a way that he seldom allows himself to be. “When my father sent me away, at first I tried to prove that I was nothing like he thought me. But when that didn’t work, I tried to be exactly what he believed I was instead. If he thought I was bad, I would be worse. If he thought I was cruel, I would be horrifying. I would live down to his every expectation. If I couldn’t have his favor, then I would have his wrath.

“Balekin did not know what to do with me. He made me attend his debauches, made me serve wine and food to show off his tame little prince. When I grew older and more ill-tempered, he grew to like having someone to discipline. His disappointments were my lashings, his insecurities my flaws. And yet, he was the first person who saw something in me he liked—himself. He encouraged all my cruelty, inflamed all my rage. And I got worse.

“I wasn’t kind, Jude. Not to many people. Not to you. I wasn’t sure if I wanted you or if I wanted you gone from my sight so that I would stop feeling as I did, which made me even more unkind. But when you were gone—truly gone beneath the waves—I hated myself as I never have before.”

I am so surprised by his words that I keep trying to find the trick in them.

He can’t truly mean what he’s saying.

“Perhaps I am foolish, but I am not a fool. You like something about me,” he says, mischief lighting his face, making its planes more familiar. “The challenge? My pretty eyes? No matter, because there is more you do not like and I know it. I can’t trust you. Still, when you were gone, I had to make a great many decisions, and so much of what I did right was imagining you beside me, Jude, giving me a bunch of ridiculous orders that I nonetheless obeyed.”

I am robbed of speech.

He laughs, his warm hand going to my shoulder. “Either I’ve surprised you or you are as ill as Madoc claimed.”

But before I can say anything, before I can even figure out what I might say, a crossbow is suddenly lowered at me. Behind it stands the Roach, with the Bomb at his heels, twin daggers in her hands.

“Your Majesty, we tracked her. She came from your brother’s house, and she’s here to kill you. Please step out of the bed,” says the Bomb.

“That’s ridiculous,” I say.

“If that’s true, show me what charms you’re wearing,” says the Roach. “Rowan? Is there even salt in your pockets? Because the Jude I know wouldn’t go around with nothing.”

My pockets are empty, of course, since Balekin would check for anything, and I don’t need it anyway. But it doesn’t leave me a lot of options in terms of proof. I could tell them about the geas from Dain, but they have no reason to believe me.

“Please get out of the bed, Your Majesty,” repeats the Bomb.

“I should be the one to get out—it’s not my bed,” I say, moving toward the footboard.

“Stay where you are, Jude,” says the Roach.

Cardan slips out of the sheets. He’s naked, which is briefly shocking, but he goes and pulls on a heavily embroidered dressing gown with no apparent shame. His lightly furred tail twitches back and forth in annoyance. “She woke me,” he says. “If she was intent on murder, that’s hardly the way to go about it.”

“Empty your pockets,” the Roach tells me. “Let’s see your weapons. Put everything on the bed.”

Cardan settles himself in a chair, his dressing gown settling around him like a robe of state.

I have little. The heel of bread, gnawed but unfinished. Two knives, crusted with dirt and grass. And the stoppered vial.

The Bomb lifts it up and looks at me, shaking her head. “Here we go.

Where did you get this?”

“From Balekin,” I say, exasperated. “Who tried to glamour me to murder Cardan because he needs him dead to persuade Grimsen to make him his own crown of Elfhame. And that is what I came to tell the High King. I would have told you first, but I couldn’t get to the Court of Shadows.”

The Bomb and the Roach share a disbelieving look.

“If I was really glamoured, would I have told you any of that?”

“Probably not,” says the Bomb. “But it would make for a quite clever

piece of misdirection.”

“I can’t be glamoured,” I admit. “It’s part of a bargain I made with Prince Dain, in exchange for my service as a spy.”

The Roach’s eyebrows go up. Cardan gives me a sharp look, as though sure anything to do with Dain can’t be good. Or perhaps he’s just surprised that I have yet another secret.

“I wondered what he gave you to make you throw in your lot with us ne’er-do-wells,” the Bomb says.

“Mostly a purpose,” I say, “but also the ability to resist glamour.”

“You could still be lying,” says the Roach. He turns to Cardan. “Try her.” “Your pardon?” Cardan says, drawing himself up, and the Roach seems to

suddenly remember to whom he’s speaking in such an offhanded way.

“Don’t be such a prickly rose, Your Majesty,” the Roach says with a shrug and a grin. “I’m not giving you an order. I’m suggesting that if you tried to glamour Jude, we could find out the truth.”

Cardan sighs and walks toward me. I know this is necessary. I know that he doesn’t intend to hurt me. I know he can’t glamour me. And yet I draw back automatically.

“Jude?” he asks. “Go ahead,” I say.

I hear the glamour enter his voice, heady and seductive and more powerful than I expected. “Crawl to me,” he says with a grin. Embarrassment pinks my cheeks.

I stay where I am, looking at all their faces. “Satisfied?” The Bomb nods. “You’re not charmed.”

“Now tell me why I ought to trust you,” I say to her and the Roach. “The Ghost came, with Vulciber, to take me to the Tower of Forgetting. Urged me to go alone, led me right to where I was to be captured, all because he didn’t want me to have Dain’s Court of Shadows. Were either of you in on it with him?”

“We didn’t know what was going on with the Ghost until it was too late,” the Roach says.

I nod. “I saw the old forest entrance to the Court of Shadows.”

“The Ghost activated some of our own explosives.” He dips his head toward the Bomb, who nods.

“Collapsed part of the castle, along with the lair of the Court of Shadows, not to mention the old catacombs where Mab’s bones lie,” Cardan says.

“He’s been planning this for a while. I was able to keep it from being worse,” she says. “A few of us got out unscathed—Snapdragon is well and spotted you climbing the hill of the palace. But many were hurt in the blast.

The sluagh—Niniel—got badly burned.” “What about the Ghost?” I ask.

“He’s on the wind,” the Bomb says. “Gone. We know not where.”

I remind myself that so long as the Bomb and the Roach are okay, things could have been a lot worse.

“Now that we’re all on the same dreary page,” Cardan says. “We must discuss what to do next.”

“If Balekin thinks he can get me into the masquerade, then let him bend his will toward that aim. I’ll play along.” I stop and turn to Cardan. “Or I could just kill him.”

The Roach claps his hand on the back of my neck with a laugh. “You did good, kid, you know that? You came out of the sea even tougher than you went in.”

I have to look down because I am surprised by how much I wanted to hear someone say that. When I glance back up, Cardan is watching me carefully. He looks stricken.

I shake my head, to keep him from saying whatever he’s thinking. “Balekin is the Ambassador to the Undersea,” he says instead, an echo of

my own words to Dulcamara. I am grateful for a return to the subject. “He’s protected by Orlagh. And she has Grimsen and a mighty desire to test me. If her ambassador was killed, she would be very angry.”

“Orlagh attacked the land already,” I remind him. “The only reason she hasn’t declared outright war is that she’s seeking every advantage. But she will. So let the first blow be ours.”

Cardan shakes his head.

“He wants to have you killed,” I insist. “Grimsen has made that a condition of his getting the crown.”

“You should have the hands of the smith,” the Bomb says. “Cut them off at the wrists so he can make no more trouble.”

The Roach nods. “I will find him tonight.”

“The three of you have one solution to every problem. Murder. No key fits every lock.” Cardan gives us all a stern look, holding up a long-fingered hand with my stolen ruby ring still on one finger. “Someone tries to betray the High King, murder. Someone gives you a harsh look, murder. Someone disrespects you, murder. Someone ruins your laundry, murder.

“I find the more I listen, the more I am reminded that I have been awakened after very little sleep. I am going to send for some tea for myself and some food for Jude, who looks a bit pale.”

Cardan stands and sends a servant for oatcakes, cheese, and two enormous pots of tea, but he does not allow anyone else into the room. He carries the

large carved-wood-and-silver tray from the door himself, setting it down on a low table.

I am too hungry to resist making a sandwich from the cakes and cheese. After I eat a second one and wash it down with three cups of tea, I do feel steadier.

“The masquerade tomorrow,” Cardan says. “It is to honor Lord Roiben of the Court of Termites. He has come all this way to yell at me, so we ought to let him. If Balekin’s assassination attempt keeps him busy until after that, so much the better.

“Roach, if you can spirit away Grimsen to somewhere he won’t cause any trouble, that would be most helpful. It’s time for him to choose sides and bend his knee to one of the players in this little game. But I do not want Balekin dead.”

The Roach takes a sip of tea and raises one bushy brow. The Bomb sighs audibly.

Cardan turns to me. “Since you were taken, I’ve gone over all the history I could find on the relationship of the land and the sea. From when the first High Queen, Mab, summoned the isles of Elfhame from the depths, our Folk have occasionally skirmished, but it seems clear that should we in earnest, there will be no victor. You said that you thought Queen Orlagh was waiting for an advantage to declare war. Instead, I think she is trying a new ruler— one she hopes she can trick or replace with another indebted to her. She thinks me young and feckless and means to take my measure.”

“So what?” I ask. “Our choice is to endure her games, no matter how deadly, or engage in a war we cannot win?”

Cardan shakes his head and drinks another cup of tea. “We show her that I am no feckless High King.”

“And how do we do that?” I ask.

“With great difficulty,” he says. “Since I fear she is right.”

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